USF’s defense finished the 2016 season 122nd in Nation in passing yards allowed per game, yielding opponents an average of 285.
Over the course of the season, USF’s defense was far better at stopping the run, allowing opponents 196 yards per game. In the Bulls’ two losses, however, it was the run defense that let them down – surrendering 478 yards on the ground to Florida State and 319 to Temple.
The loss at Temple on Oct. 21, USF’s only conference defeat, ultimately kept the Bulls from reaching the school’s first-ever conference championship game and a potential “New Year’s Six” bowl bid.
Nobody remembers the pain of the loss more than senior defensive tackles Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector, who look to lead the Bulls’ 2017 defense amid high expectations with nine starters returning.
“Last year, on the defensive side of the ball, we didn’t have a really hot year,” Hector said. “Our goal is to come out confident on defense.”
In the loss at Temple, the Owls converted 10 of 16 third downs. In 2017, Bulls first-year defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary is putting extra emphasis on bringing opponents third down conversion percentage down.
“They couldn’t get off the field on third down,” Jean-Mary said. “There were too many missed opportunities. When you can’t get off the field, that leads to fatigue. We’ve got to focus on that.”
In order to combat the fatigue, USF defensive tackles coach Sean Cronin wants to have three more “solid” players who can rotate with starters Hector and Senat at the position.
With Hector and Senat as the primary run stuffers, junior Kevin Bronson and sophomore Marlon Gonzalez will step up to play behind the two at tackle. In the search for a fifth tackle, Cronin pinpointed freshmen Kelvin Pinkney and Kevin Kegler to possibly fill the fifth spot, but still has some concerns.
“They’re still learning how we do things and they’re still adjusting,” Cronin said. “One play they look like they’re ready right now and the other play they couldn’t seem further away.”
As the summer camp progressed, Hector and Senat prepared to shoulder leadership on the defensive line.
“As seniors, we have to make sure we bring everyone along,” Hector said. “We still have to have the young guys come out and produce for us this year.”
“If a coach says something, they [freshmen] might not get it,” Senat said. “But if a player does, it’ll stick more. I believe we have some young guys that are going to step up and play a big role for us and they’re actually going to help us win games this year.”
Senat, a projected middle-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, according to ESPN.com, was a redshirt freshman in 2013, but has played in all but one game in his past three years as a Bull. His list of accolades in 2016 alone included a second-team all-conference selection, 2016 USF Defensive MVP award and a career-high and team-leading 49 tackles, seven for a loss.
Before the season has even started in 2017, Senat has been placed on the Nagurski (best defensive player in NCAA) and the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman in college football) watch lists.
Hector tied the team high with six sacks in 2016. Senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who also had six sacks and a team high 120 total tackles, is fully healthy for the 2017 season after he spent spring practices rehabbing right labrum surgery.
“We know we can be a top 25 defense,” Hector, said. “We have all of the capabilities to make it work.”
While leading the team in sacks on the field, Hector serves as a role model off as well.
Hector, who graduated with an engineering degree in the spring, earned the Frank Morsani Leadership Award and the Defensive Lineman Award at the annual football banquet last December.
As the anchors of the defensive line, Hector and Senat seek to improve
last season’s defensive performance under Jean-Mary, and should have no problem in under their new coach when the Bulls travel to play San Jose State in Week 1.
Still without a starting quarterback named for the 2017 season opener, the Spartans ranked 94th in total offense last season.
In order to succeed, however, Jean-Mary emphasized that the team needs depth and young players to step up.
“It’s a collective build,” Senat said about the young players progress. “We’re all growing together.”
Though San Jose State’s 4-8 record last season doesn’t make it a threat to No. 19 USF on paper, some seniors on the team who’ve redshirted have experienced the unknowns associated with the first game back after a coaching change. During Willie Taggart’s inaugural season as head coach in 2013, the program posted a 2-10 record that included a 53-21 loss to McNeese State in the season opener.
McNeese State, which was paid $400,000 to play USF in Week 1 in 2013, plays in the NCAA Division I-AA. USF would go on to finish the season 2-10.
Regardless of what happens in Week 1 and the rest of the season, the will to lead by Senat and Hector is strong.
“All together we stand and all together we shall fall.” Senat said. “I’m going to lead them the best I can. I’m going to lead by my actions.
“You know how you sharpen iron? You put it in the fire, you take it out and you stomp on it. Then you put it right back in the fire and I feel that’s exactly what Coach Strong is doing. He’s putting us in the fire, he’s letting us know we gotta grind day-in and day-out.”